Woman with hand to ear because of hearing loss.

One of the myths about hearing loss is that it’s all about the volume. The truth is that many people with hearing loss can’t make out certain sounds, and that makes speech garbled. Given that 48 million Americans experience some level of hearing loss, it is important the we understand how it really works.

Types of Hearing Loss

  • Conductive Hearing Loss – Conductive hearing loss is caused by some type of mechanical problem in the ear. It could be a congenital structural problem in the ear, or it could be due to things such as an ear infection or wax buildup. In many cases, doctors can treat the underlying condition to improve your hearing, and if necessary, recommend hearing aids to make up for any remaining deficiency.
  • Sensorineural Hearing Loss – The vast majority of people who have trouble hearing have sensorineural hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is caused by problems with the tiny hair, or cilia, in the inner ear. These hairs move when they sense sound, and then they release chemical messengers to the auditory nerve. The auditory nerve then passes what it received to the brain for interpretation.When these tiny hairs in your inner ear get damaged or die, they do not regenerate. This is why sensorineural hearing loss is often caused by nothing other than the natural process of aging. Things like exposure to loud noise, some medications and certain illnesses can also lead to sensorineural hearing loss

What Happens When You Have Sensorineural Hearing Loss?

This is where the question of volume comes in. It may help a little if people speak louder, but it isn’t going to completely address the problem. People with sensorineural hearing loss have trouble making out certain sounds, for example consonants in speech. This may lead someone with hearing loss to the mistaken conclusion that the people around them need to stop mumbling, when in fact those people are talking completely clearly.

This is due to the pitch of consonant sounds. Pitch is measured in hertz, or Hz, and many consonants reach our ears at a much higher pitch than other sounds. For example, a short “o” comes in at 250 to 1,000 Hz depending on the voice of the person speaking, while consonants like “f” and “s” come in at 1,500 to 6,000 Hz. People with sensorineural hearing loss have difficulty processing those higher-pitched sounds due the problems with their inner ears.

This is why just talking more loudly doesn’t always help. If you can’t understand many of the letters in a word like “shift,” it won’t make much difference how much the other person speaks up.

How Can Hearing Aids Help?

You may now be wondering how hearing aids can help with sensorineural hearing loss, since they primarily amplify sounds. Hearing aids sit in or on the ear, so the sounds reaches your auditory system without some of the interference you get from your environment.

Remember that your hearing is a complex system that involves the brain as much as the ears. The brain takes the sounds it gets from both ears and tells you what they are. Any issue in this process and the brain can’t tell you what people are saying. More specifically, hearing aids:

  • Help your brain interpret from which direction the sound is coming
  • Make it easier for you to understand speech in a noisy environment like at the dinner table or at a party
  • Improve your hearing overall

If you find that you have trouble understanding speech from multiple people or even when watching TV, don’t hesitate to visit a hearing specialist for an exam. Ignoring hearing loss can make the problem worse and greatly reduce your quality of life. Keep in mind that you are one of only tens of millions of people dealing with the same issues in their daily lives.

Don’t let the thought of hearing aids stop you either. More than 91 percent of people in one study reported satisfaction with their hearing aids, with a whopping 90 percent saying they would recommend them to friends and family.

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